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“What a great day for humanity” would probably have done the trick

datePosted on 21:25, May 10th, 2012 by Lew

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.


* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

20 Responses to ““What a great day for humanity” would probably have done the trick”

  1. Scott Anderson on May 10th, 2012 at 21:47

    It was a sad little episode, wasn’t it? All Shearer needed to do, if he or his people felt the need to grab a piece of Obama’s shine, was to simply tweet “I support marriage equality.”

    The equivocation, the needing to ‘see the legislation’, didn’t need to be there – if the politics needed to be played, then the time would’ve been when Labour was in government, or if a bill were to be drawn. But by putting the mealy-mouthed politicing up front, Shearer’s showing himself to be just another politician who’ll abandon principles in favour of politics, which is never going to go over well with twitter’s leftists.

    Even three hours later when he felt the need to ‘clarify’ his statement, he still had to add a modifier, the he ‘personally’ supported marriage equality. That ‘p’ word didn’t have to be there, no matter what audience he was intending the modifier to mollycoddle (Chris Trotter?)

  2. Chris Miller on May 10th, 2012 at 22:02

    I’m a little concerned that he feels the need to assure us he’d have to look at the wording of the legislation. Does he not do that for other legislation? Does he just vote for things based on the title, maybe?

    (Tongue in cheek here, mostly.)

  3. Lew on May 10th, 2012 at 22:08

    Chris, crueller people than me will no doubt point to this episode of a couple of months ago as evidence toward that conclusion.


  4. Chris Miller on May 10th, 2012 at 22:09

    I believe an “oh snap!” is in order. :)

  5. Chris Trotter on May 11th, 2012 at 08:40

    Just so you know, Scott, I am an unequivocal supporter of gay marriage. Lew’s analysis of this incident mirrors my own. The only observation I would add is that with Grant Robertson clearly positioning himself for a tilt at the Labour leadership, I would have thought the political costs of equivocation on this issue would have been even clearer to Shearer.

  6. sammy 2.0 on May 11th, 2012 at 11:45

    Pretty much nail on head, Lew.

    It’s becoming a familiar feeling, where I shout at the radio/TV/computer … “David, do you really not know how this business works?”

    The answer is that he doesn’t, which is not surprising for a novice, but much worse, he’s taking advice from people who think they DO know, the people who got it consistently wrong for the last three years.

    What’s next? “I do support gay marriage, but don’t get me wrong, I really want to do Liz Hurley.”

  7. QoT on May 11th, 2012 at 15:24

    This presents an interesting question in light of my own theory about Shearer’s Twitter account. Did the equivocation come from the man himself, or the policybot? Either way, I think all your points are pretty much on the money, Lew. That was a bloody shambolic way to try and win a point.

  8. Lew on May 11th, 2012 at 16:18

    Q, yeah, I wondered about this as well. Since it’s unknowable (short of asking, and believing, Shearer or his office) I generally fall back on simulacra theory. As long as we are given to believe that @DavidShearerMP is in fact David Shearer, MP, it doesn’t much matter whether it is or not — the latter can be held to the utterances of the former, regardless.


  9. Russell Brown on May 11th, 2012 at 16:28

    Nicely argued, Lew.

    I think the political atmosphere that has developed around Shearer was significant. The activist left is pretty much sitting around waiting to be pissed off with any position Shearer takes, or doesn’t quite take, or whatever.

    There was also, of course, a Left contingent on Twitter slamming him for going out on a “niche” issue that didn’t really matter and supposedly playing into National’s hands. I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard.

    The really fascinating thing is the subsequent muted response today to Key’s risible statement to an AP reporter (where was our own Gallery yesterday?) about having nothing against marriage equality — off the back of a series of ludicrous evasions on the same topic.

  10. Chris Miller on May 11th, 2012 at 16:35

    I know personally I didn’t do any major reaction to Key’s comment because it’s just too exhausting. I wrote an email through marriageequality.co.nz or whatever the site was but I have other things to talk and write about and Key’s position hasn’t really changed from more of the same heming and hawing he always does. I’ve said what I have to say on the issue, I’ve done an email to him, I’ve done an email to my local MP to confirm her position (she voted for Civil Unions and against the Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment so I’m 99.5% sure she’s for marriage equality), so I can’t really be bothered doing another big thing about John Key still being a tool.

    Though I actually think there has been a response from other people. I’ve seen quite a lot of talk about his “no clamour” line.

  11. Sacha on May 11th, 2012 at 16:38

    My own despair was over the timing of this, following boatpeople and welfare mums as obviously engineered distractions from the government’s woeful economic management (including a massive revenue hole) just before a crucial Budget.

    A simple and direct statement of Shearer’s support would have attracted praise and little fuss. This could be followed up by a more full discussion after the Budget.

    It’s great for broader progressive movements to constantly champion significant social causes like this. We need that. However, a broad party of the left ought to know that other concerns like jobs, education and health are their core job to address right now. Political allies can also bring focus to a range of other topics.

    I’d like to be optimistic that they’re improving, but it still seems that whoever is doing Labour’s comms/strategy needs to be taken behind the nearest shed and put out of our misery. That is not Shearer, and the naive focus on frontpeople frustrates me.

  12. Russell Brown on May 11th, 2012 at 16:48

    As to whether the calamitously cautious note came from Shearer or his advisory panel …

    My guess is that were he still merely the MP for Mt Albert (a job at which I think he was very good), Shearer would have said something less equivocal — but only if he was asked.

  13. Craig Ranapia on May 11th, 2012 at 16:49

    “The equivocation, the needing to ‘see the legislation’, didn’t need to be there.”

    No it didn’t — perhaps I’m an old-fashioned kind of gal, but I kind of expect MPs to at least glance at legislation before they vote on it.

    Anyway, it’s kind of embarrasing reading this in The Netherlands — where marriage equality has been a reality for eleven years without undue trauma.

  14. Russell Brown on May 11th, 2012 at 16:51

    Though I actually think there has been a response from other people. I’ve seen quite a lot of talk about his “no clamour” line.

    True. But the tone is different to that visited on Shearer.

  15. QoT on May 11th, 2012 at 16:53

    Lew – completely agree on it not mattering in terms of holding Shearer to what his Twitter account says. The reason I’m interested is down to what a lot of people have been saying about Shearer, and said about Goff in turn – that he is actually passionate, charismatic, forceful, but the public [generated?] image doesn’t match up, to his detriment.

    (This may be a double post as my computer is throwing a tizzy, so apologies!)

  16. Russell Brown on May 11th, 2012 at 17:16

    what a lot of people have been saying about Shearer, and said about Goff in turn – that he is actually passionate, charismatic, forceful, but the public [generated?] image doesn’t match up, to his detriment.

    He’s my local MP and I met him a couple of times in that context. He didn’t strike me as charismatic or forceful. But decent, sincere and thoughtful, yes. His problem may indeed be a hopeless lack of guile.

  17. Lew on May 11th, 2012 at 19:04


    My own despair was over the timing of this, following boatpeople and welfare mums as obviously engineered distractions from the government’s woeful economic management (including a massive revenue hole) just before a crucial Budget … It’s great for broader progressive movements to constantly champion significant social causes like this. We need that. However, a broad party of the left ought to know that other concerns like jobs, education and health are their core job to address right now.

    See, this looks an awful lot like the whole “what really matters” argument customarily deployed to sideline women, Māori and — in this case — teh gays.

    But even that aside, I think this analysis is wrong for two main reasons. First, Labour has dedicated relatively little time or space to any of the three issues you cite; most of the air has been granted them by the media, or by other players like Colin Craig. Some of this, as in the case in point, has been due to poor management by Labour, so fair cop for that. But that’s not true of the boatpeople or welfare reform topics. Second, only the boatpeople topic is a genuine distraction. The marriage equality topic was, as I’ve argued, a one-time opportunity. It had to be now or never. The welfare reforms, and especially the beneficiary-contraception policy, actually is a core issue for the opposition, and actually is a budget issue. So they would be lax if they hadn’t discussed it, and despite what John Armstrong thinks, I think there’s a good argument that they have been too timid.


  18. Sacha on May 11th, 2012 at 19:25

    What really matters *in the 3 weeks leading up to a Budget*.

    The announced beneficiary contraception policy is budgeted at $1m.

    If you’re right that these are winning issues for Labour and supporters to invest energy in, then I guess we’ll all see a dramatic uptick in their polling.

  19. Lew on May 11th, 2012 at 20:43

    My argument is not as linear as “push buttons -> poll numbers rise”.


  20. […] was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As […]

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